This week’s weather forecast may prove to be winter’s last gasp, but northbound migrant birds are leaving North Wales as days lengthen. Snow Buntings were this week at RSPB South Stack, Porth Ysgaden, Morfa Madryn and beside Llyn Aled Isaf, high on Mynydd Hiraethog. Most are probably Icelandic breeding birds, mainly females that migrate farther away from their nesting areas than males. It is suspected that more winter in the Welsh mountains than are found, since flocks that are discovered tend to be larger than on the coast.
Other winter migrants include Whooper Swans at Rhuddlan and Bodelwyddan, Iceland Gull on the Little Orme, and Twite at Connah’s Quay nature reserve, where a Little Gull remained all week. Long-tailed Ducks and a Black-throated Diver are off Colwyn Bay and a Lesser Whitethroat, most likely one of the Siberian races, has visited a bird table in Chirk. Passing through were a dozen Black Redstarts on Bardsey last Wednesday, three at RSPB South Stack and one at Mynydd Bodafon. Lapland Buntings were over the Great Orme and South Stack.
Early summer arrivals include the first Little Ringed Plover at Bodelwyddan, Sandwich Terns at Cemlyn and Willow Warblers at South Stack and Amlwch last Wednesday, and a Sedge Warbler at Morfa Madryn on Sunday. Several Ring Ouzels are back on breeding territory in Nant Ffrancon, below Ogwen Cottage, and at Aber Falls.
Glaslyn’s female Osprey returned to the nest platform at Pont Croesor on Saturday, perfect timing for volunteers who re-opened the Visitor Centre on Monday. ‘Mrs G’ was soon fishing off Porthmadog Cob, where an Avocet was reported among Teal last week. Ospreys were also in the Conwy and Artro estuaries last week. A White Stork photographed over Queensferry on Sunday was perhaps one seen over Buckley last month.
Spring is truly my favourite season. Longer days encourage me to spend more time outdoors, knowing that birds are moving and almost anything is possible. An early Saturday walk at RSPB Conwy was brightened by a pair of Garganey. Another two males swam into view, joined by a fourth male. The presence of a female among the quintet led to much scrapping, the males emitting an excited throaty call akin to running a drumstick down a washboard. The call is the source of its unusual English name that has made a complex etymological journey from Italian via Lombardy, with the same root as the verb ‘gargle’.
But these birds had come even farther. Garganey winter in sub-Saharan Africa and rarely breed in Wales so those seen here in spring are probably heading for Scandinavia. Five at Conwy and six at Malltraeth Cob on Saturday were the earliest seen in North Wales this century, and singles followed at RSPB Cors Ddyga and RSPB Burton Mere Wetlands on Sunday. They are among at least 250 Garganey reported to the Birdguides website in the southern half of Britain since Friday.
The wardening team have returned to Bardsey Bird & Field Observatory for the summer and are already busy recording migrants, including the first Manx Shearwaters in their nest burrows, Firecrest and Black Redstart; another Black Redstart was across the sound at Uwchmynydd on Monday. As well as large numbers of Chiffchaffs and a handful of Sand Martins and Wheatears, summer migrants in North Wales include the first House Martin of the year at RSPB Cors Ddyga and an Osprey at Malltraeth on Monday, and a Little Gull and four Avocets at Connah’s Quay nature reserve on Sunday. A Ring-necked Duck on Cefni Reservoir is only the fourth recorded on Anglesey.
After the smoke cleared following shocking images of the Dee marshes ablaze at the weekend, RSPB nature reserve staff revealed that the extensive blackened area should be home to breeding Bittern and Cetti’s Warbler in a few weeks, and a pair of Marsh Harriers that were building a nest. The marshes will hopefully recover with new growth in the coming weeks, although it will take longer for insects and small mammals to recolonise. Cheshire Police report that three teenage boys have been arrested on suspicion of arson. The impact would have been more devastating had it occurred in late April, as happened with a similarly large fire at reedbeds on the Tay estuary in 2020.
I contributed to the Welsh Ornithological Society’s rookery survey at the weekend, finding two rookeries in a 2km x 2km square in the Conwy Valley. The woven collections of sticks are evident in bare trees and the raucous, squabbling calls carry across the fields. Counting Rook nests is fairly straightforward too, except for those in the canopy of a tall Scots Pine. But identifying the tree species, especially deciduous trees that have yet to bud or leaf, is trickier. Thankfully Cofnod, the North Wales Environmental Records Centre gathering the records, allows you to upload a photo of the tree, so experts can verify my identification later. WOS reports that volunteers have signed up for 70% of priority tetrads, but there are still a few squares on Llŷn, north Anglesey, central Denbighshire and along the English border that need coverage in the next couple of weeks, before the leaves emerge. Visit birdsin.wales to sign up (and see the priority squares that need surveying here).
My survey was accompanied by double-noted Chiffchaffs, which arrived in number over the weekend. Wheatears landed on coastal headlands across the region, having travelled from sub-Saharan Africa. Other summer migrants include a Ring Ouzel near Minera on Sunday, White Wagtails and Sand Martins at RSPB Conwy, and a White Stork - the national bird of Ukraine - over Buckley on Friday.
Overwintering birds remaining include a Great Grey Shrike in Mynydd Hiraethog, near the Sportsman’s Arms, Iceland Gull on the Little Orme and Cattle Egret on Bardsey. Hawfinches were again in Llanrwst and Blaenau Ffestiniog, two Surf Scoters off Pensarn on Monday and a Great Northern Diver off Ynys Llanddwyn. Birders were shocked to learn of an attempt to steal eggs from a Raven nest on Anglesey at the weekend, providing a timely reminder not to publicise the presence of nesting birds on social media.
The Birds of Wales, published last year by Liverpool University Press and the Welsh Ornithological Society (click here for details), ranked the breeding birds for which Wales is particularly important. It was no surprise that Chough was top, with 79% of the UK population, and that Pied Flycatcher (68-76%) and Manx Shearwater (57%) featured, but I had not appreciated that Wales is estimated to hold as much as 70% of the UK’s Hawfinches. This chunky brown songbird, with a bill capable of cracking cherry stones, has important populations in Meirionnydd and the Wye Valley, with others on the edge of Cardiff.
More than a dozen fed this week in trees along the river at Llanrwst, and another three at Caerhun churchyard. Colour ringing suggests that at least some Conwy Valley Hawfinches will soon leave for Norway, but do others stay locally? (For more on the colour-ringing project, read this Daily Post article from 2017). Having gone from many sites in southern Britain, the race is on to find out more about this enigmatic bird. A PhD student, Ewan Stenhouse, at Cardiff University has been investigating Hawfinch diet using the latest genetic barcoding technology to identify the species in its droppings. Now the RSPB is co-funding a study at Lincoln University to investigate the impact of the Trichomonas parasite that is responsible for the collapse in the Greenfinch population (the closing date for applications is 31 March).
Other birds in North Wales include the first Wheatear of the year at Cemlyn on Monday, a Ring-necked Duck at Llyn Brenig on Friday that may have been the one that overwintered on Llyn Tegid. A Great Grey Shrike continues to feed among clearfell near the reservoir, a Bonaparte’s Gull flew up the Conwy estuary on Saturday, Cattle Egrets remain at Llanynghenedl and Bardsey and an Iceland Gull on the Little Orme. Calm seas improved viewing of a Long-tailed Ducks off Criccieth, Colwyn Bay and Benllech, Surf and Velvet Scoters off Llanddulas/Old Colwyn and a couple of dozen Great Northern Divers in Caernarfon Bay.
A weekly update of bird sightings and news from North Wales.